Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends

Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends

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by Lewis Spence

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Superb, in-depth survey explores animism, totemism, fetishism, creation myths, Egyptian priesthood, numerous deities, alchemy, Egyptian art and magic, other fascinating topics. Includes over 50 photographs and illustrations.
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Superb, in-depth survey explores animism, totemism, fetishism, creation myths, Egyptian priesthood, numerous deities, alchemy, Egyptian art and magic, other fascinating topics. Includes over 50 photographs and illustrations.

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Dover Publications
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Egypt Series
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5.45(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.81(d)

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Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends


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ISBN: 978-0-486-13134-4



THE group of beliefs which constituted what for convenience' sake is called the Egyptian religion in an existence of some thousands of years passed through nearly every phase known to the student of comparative mythology. If the theologians of ancient Egypt found it impossible to form a pantheon of deities with any hope of consistency, assigning to each god or goddess his or her proper position in the divine galaxy as ruling over a definite sphere, cosmic or psychical, it may be asked in what manner the modern mythologist is better equipped to reduce to order elements so recondite and difficult of elucidation as the mythic shapes of the divinities worshipped in the Nile Valley. But the answer is ready. The modern science of comparative religion is extending year by year, and its light is slowly but certainly becoming diffused among the dark places of the ancient faiths. By the gleam of this magic lamp, then—more wonderful than any dreamt of by the makers of Eastern fable—let us walk in the gloom of the pyramids, in the cool shadows of ruined temples, aye, through the tortuous labyrinth of the Egyptian mind itself, trusting that by virtue of the light we carry we shall succeed in unravelling to some extent the age-long enigma of this mystic land.

One of the first considerations which occur to us is that among such a concourse of gods as is presented by the Egyptian religion it would have been surprising if confusion had not arisen in the native mind concerning them. This is proved by the texts, which display in many cases much difficulty in defining the exact qualities of certain deities, their grouping and classification. The origin of this haziness is not far to seek. The deities of the country multiplied at such an astonishing rate that whereas we find the texts of the early dynasties give us the names of some two hundred deities only, the later Theban Recension (or version) of the Book of the Dead supplies nearly five hundred, to which remain to be added the names of mythological beings to the number of eight hundred.

Local Gods

Another cause which made for confusion was that in every large town of Upper and Lower Egypt and its neighbourhood religion took what might almost be called a local form. Thus the great gods of the country were known by different names in each nome or province, their ritual was distinctive, and even the legends of their origin and adventures assumed a different shape. Many of the great cities, too, possessed special gods of their own, and to these were often added the attributes of one or more of the greater and more popular forms of godhead. The faith of the city that was the royal residence became the religion par excellence of the entire kingdom, its temple became the Mecca of all good Egyptians, and its god was, so long as these conditions obtained, the Jupiter of the Egyptian pantheon. It might have been expected that when Egypt attained a uniformity of culture, art, and nationhood, her religion, as in the case of other peoples, would also become uniform and simplified. But such a consummation was never achieved. Even foreign intercourse failed almost entirely to break down the religious conservatism of priesthood and people. Indeed, the people may be said to have proved themselves more conservative than the priests. Alterations in religious policy, differentiation in legend and hieratic texts emanated from time to time from the various colleges of priests, or from that fount of religion, the sovereign himself; but never was a change made in deference to the popular clamour unless it was a reversion to an older type. Indeed, as the dynasties advance we behold the spectacle of a theological gulf growing betwixt priests and people, the former becoming more idealistic and the latter remaining as true to the outer semblance of things, the symbolic, as of old.

The evolution of religion in ancient Egypt must have taken the same course as among other races, and any hypothesis which attempts to explain it otherwise is almost certainly doomed to non-success. Of late years many works by learned Egyptologists have been published which purport to supply a more or less wide survey of Egyptian mythology and to unravel its deeper significances. The authors of some of these works, however admirable they may be as archæologists or as translators of hieroglyphic texts, are for the most part but poorly equipped to grapple with mythological difficulties. To ensure success in mythological elucidation a special training is necessary, and a prolonged familiarity with the phenomena of early religion in its many and diverse forms is a first essential. In the work of one foreign Egyptologist of standing, for example, a candid confession is made of ignorance regarding mythological processes. He claims to present the "Egyptian religion as it appears to an unprejudiced observer who knows nothing of the modern science of religions." Another Egyptologist of the first rank writes upon the subject of totemism, in the most elementary manner, and puts forward the claim that such a system never existed in the Nile valley. But these questions will be dealt with in their proper places.

Beginning with forms of the lower cultus—forms almost certainly of African origin—the older religion of Egypt persisted strongly up to the time of the Hyksos period, after which time the official religion of the country may be found in one or other form of sun-worship. That is to say, all the principal deities of the country were at some time amalgamated or identified with the central idea of a sun-god.

The Egyptian religion of the Middle and Late Kingdoms was as much a thing of philosophic invention as later Greek myth, only, so far as we have the means of judging, it was not nearly so artistic or successful. For, whereas we find numerous allusions in the texts to definite myths, we seldom find in Egyptian literature the myths themselves. Indeed, our chief repository of Egyptian religious tales is the De Iside et Osaride of the Greek Plutarch—an uncertain authority. It is presumed that the myths were so well known popularly that to write them down for the use of such a highly religious people as the Egyptians would have been a work of supererogation. The loss to posterity, however, is immeasurable, and, lacking a full chronicle of the deeds of the gods of Egypt, we can only grope through textual and allied matter for scraps of intelligence which, when pieced together, present anything but an appearance of solidity and comprehensiveness.


It has been admitted that the ancient Egyptians, like other early races, could not have evolved a religion unless by the usual processes of religious growth. Thus we discover, by means of numerous clues more or less strong, that they passed through the phase known as animism, or animatism. This is the belief that practically every object in the universe surrounding man has a soul and a personality such as he himself possesses. Man at an early date of his consciousness formulated the belief in a soul, that mysterious second self which even the most debased races believe in. The phenomena of sleep, the return of consciousness after slumber, and the strange experiences of life and adventures in dreamland while asleep would force early man to the conclusion that he possessed a double or second self, and it was merely an extension of that idea which made him suppose that this secondary personality would continue to exist after death.

But what proof have we that the early dwellers in Egypt passed through this phase? Besides the belief in a human soul, the animistic condition of mind sees in every natural object a living entity. Thus trees, rivers, winds, and animals all possess the gift of rational thought and speech. How is it possible to prove that the ancient Egyptians believed that such objects possessed conscious souls and individualities of their own?

First as to the early Egyptian belief that man himself possessed a soul. The Egyptian symbol for the soul (the ba) is a man-headed bird. Now the conception of the soul as a bird is a very common one among savages and barbarians of a low order. To uncultured man the bird is always incomprehensible because of its magical power of flight, its appearance in the sky where dwell the gods, and its song, approaching speech. From the bird the savage evolves the idea of the winged spirit or god, the messenger from the heavens. Thus many supernatural beings in all mythological systems are given wings. Many American Indian tribes believe that birds are the visible spirits of the dead. The Powhatans of Virginia believed that birds received the souls of their chiefs at death, and the Aztecs that the spirits of departed warriors took the shapes of hummingbirds and flitted from flower to flower in the sunshine. The Boros of Brazil believe that the soul has the shape of a bird, and passes in that form out of the body in dream. The Bilquila Indians of British Columbia conceive the soul as residing in an egg situated in the nape of the neck. If the shell cracks and the soul flies away the man must perish. A Melanesian magician was accustomed to send out his soul in the form of an eagle to find out what was happening in passing ships. Pliny states that the soul of Aristeas of Proconnesus was seen to issue from his mouth in the shape of a raven. A like belief occurs in countries so far distant from one another as Bohemia and Malaysia.

We see from these parallel examples, then, that the ancient Egyptians were not singular in figuring the soul in bird-shape. This idea partakes of the nature of animistic belief. But other and more concrete examples of this phase of religious activity occur to us. For instance, the objects found in early graves in Egypt, as elsewhere, are sometimes broken with the manifest intention of setting free their 'spirits,' doubtless to join that of their owner. Again, in the myth of Osiris we find that his coffin when at rest in Byblos became entangled in the growth of a tree—an obvious piece of folk-memory crystallizing the race reminiscence of an early form of tree-worship—a branch of animistic belief. In the texts, too, statements frequently occur which can be referred only to an early condition of animism. Thus each door in the other-world was sentient, and would open if correctly adjured. We find in chapter lxxxvi of the Papyrus of Ani the Flame of the Sun addressed as an individual, as is the ferryboat of Ra in chapter xlii. "I am the knot of the Aser tree," says the dead man in the same chapter, referring to the tree which wound itself around the coffin of Osiris. All these are animistic references, and could be easily multiplied by a glance through any representative Egyptian manuscript. The practice of magic, too, in later times in the Nile Valley is to some extent merely a survival of animistic belief.

Fetishism and Totemism

Fetishism, too, bulks largely in Egyptian religious conceptions. Many of the gods are represented as carrying the fetishes from which they may have originally been derived. Thus the arrow of Neith is fetishistic (a statement which will afterwards be justified), as are the symbols of Min and other deities.

Fetishism, regarding which I have given a prolonged explanation elsewhere, is a term applied to the use of objects large or small, natural or artificial, regarded as possessing consciousness, volition, and supernatural qualities—In short, a fetish object is the home of a wandering spirit which has taken up residence there. The remnants of fetishism are also to be discerned in the amulets which were worn by every Egyptian, living and dead. All amulets partake of the nature of fetishes, and the remark is often heard that good luck resides in them. That is, just as the savage believes that a powerful agency working for his good dwells in the portable fetish, so the civilized man cannot altogether discredit the idea that the object attached to his watch-chain does not possess some inherent quality of good fortune. Many of these amulets typify divinities, such as the 'buckle' sign which symbolizes the protection of Isis; the sacred eye representative of Horus; and the symbol of the parallel fingers might perhaps recall the fetishistic necklaces of fingers found among many savage peoples.

Many Egyptologists deny that totemism entered as a force into the religion of ancient Egypt. Totemism may be defined as the recognition, exploitation, and adjustment of the imaginary mystic relationship of the individual or the tribe to the supernatural powers or spirits which surround them. Whereas the fetish is to some extent the servant of its owner, a spirit lured to dwell in a material object to do the behest of an individual or a community, the totem, whether personal or tribal, is a patron and protector and is often represented in animal or vegetable shape. The basic difference between the individual and tribal totem is still obscure, but for our present purpose it will be sufficient to deal with the latter. The most notable antagonist of the theory that some of the divinities of ancient Egypt are of totemic origin is Dr. E. A. Walls Budge, the well-known Egyptologist. In his Gods of the Egyptians he says: "It now seems to be generally admitted by ethnologists that there are three main causes which have induced men to worship animals, i.e. they have worshipped them as animals or as the dwelling-place of gods or as representatives of tribal ancestors. There is no reason whatsoever for doubting that in neolithic times the primitive Egyptians worshipped animals as animals and as nothing more." None of the above statements approaches a definition of totemism. The theory that the totem is a tribal ancestor is now regarded as doubtful. Dr. Budge continues : "The question as to whether the Egyptians worshipped animals as representatives of tribal ancestors or 'totems' is one which has given rise to much discussion, and this is not to be wondered at, for the subject is one of difficulty. We know that many of the standards which represent the nomes of Egypt are distinguished by figures of birds and animals, e.g. the hawk, the bull, the hare, etc. But it is not clear whether these are intended to represent 'totems' or not.... The animal or bird standing on the top of a nome perch or standard is not intended for a fetish or a representative of a tribal ancestor, but for a creature which was regarded as the deity under whose protection the people of a certain tract of territory were placed, and we may assume that within the limits of that territory it was unlawful to kill or injure such animal or bird." Totems are invariably carried on banners, poles, and shields, and it is unlawful to kill them. He also states that the totemic theory "may explain certain facts connected with the animal-worship of numbers of savage and half-savage tribes in some parts of the world, but it cannot in the writer's opinion be regarded as affording an explanation of the animal-worship of the Egyptians."

Wherefore, it may be asked, was Egypt alone immune from the influence of totemism? Dr. Budge continues, by way of final refutation of the totemic theory, that on nome standards several objects besides animals were worshipped and regarded as gods, or that they became the symbols of the deities which were worshipped in them. Thus on some standards were displayed representations of hills, arrows, fish, and so forth. These objects, Dr. Budge seems to imply, cannot be fetishistic or totemic. Dr. Budge cannot, for example, find the reason why three hills were connected with a god. This does not present a mythological problem of high complexity. In many parts of the world mountain-peaks, separately or in groups, are objects of direct worship. A mountain may be worshipped because it is the abode of a god; for its own sake, as were Olympus, Sinai, and Carmel, which latterly became the high places of deities; or because they were supposed to be the birthplaces of certain tribes. In old Peru, for example, as we are informed by the Indian writer Salcamayhua, each localized tribe or Ayllu had its own paccarisca, or place of origin, many of which were mountains which were addressed by the natives in the formula:

"Thou art my birthplace,
Thou art my life-spring,
Guard me from evil,
O paccarisca!"

These mountains were, of course, oracular, as those represented on the Egyptian standards would probably be. That they were worshipped as the houses of oracles and for their own sakes, and not as the home of a deity, seems to be proved in that they, rather than such a deity, are represented in the standards.

Neither can Dr. Budge decipher in a mythological sense the symbol of two arrows placed notch to notch with double barbs pointing outward. Arrows of this type are common as fetishes in several parts of the world. Among the Cheyenne Indians of the Plains the set of four sacred, 'medicine' arrows constitutes the tribal palladium which they claim to have had from the beginning of the world, and which was annually utilized in tribal ceremonial as lately as 1904. They also had a rite spoken of as 'fixing' the arrows, which was undertaken by priests specially set apart as the guardians of this great fetish.


Excerpted from Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends by LEWIS SPENCE. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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